Forgetting Ahab: Moby-Dick after America

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What is the fate of Melville's Ahab when the national narrative of the United States appears to be unraveling? The doomed Captain in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick has served as a potent emblem of the passions that have shaped American political life in times of war and strife. Having suffered an unforgivable humiliation, Ahab reacts by mobilizing a group of men drawn from all corners of the globe to aid him in a personal quest for vengeance that he nevertheless insists is undertaken on behalf of all humankind. Although he is able to unify these individuals from diverse backgrounds in a common cause, Ahab ends up leading them to their doom. Defined by vindictive rage as well as cold calculation, he reflects the spirit in which the United States has fought its wars - its belief that it is the innocent victim of morally evil forces. He has thus served as an indelible figure of warning against the hubris of imperial ventures that end in disaster. But what becomes of Ahab when the country undergoes a fundamental alteration in its conception of itself? Ahab, after all, is a white heterosexual man who is also a victim - what becomes of him in the new racial politics, which denies that members of the socially dominant group can have victimhood status? This essay examines the fate of Ahab as symbol in the two decades since 9-11, in which a drastic shift has taken place in the cultural imaginary of the United States.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-260
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of English Language and Literature
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 ELLAK

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Linguistics and Language


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